On a foggy morning I put on “Ogre,” the second track from Richard Dawson’s new album, “Peasant,” and close my eyes as violin and guitar welcome me into the musician’s dark world. Suddenly I’m in some distant land, in a candlelit room where dusk is just beginning to take its hold on the landscape outside. The chorus of voices accompanying the British singer seems anxious and powerful in equal turns, and when Dawson’s voice emerges alone the space of the composition pierces my heart. Even as I’m drawn in to enchanting melody I can sense something strange about these compositions. They are beautiful and unnerving as they twist and turn in bizarre directions, and sometimes I have to gasp for breath in between the tales that Dawson weaves.
But that sort of deft touch seems to be Dawson’s most potent gift. His voice, rattling and oddly inviting, spins gruesome tales of medieval lands. Then suddenly his delivery comes through with a line that breaks your heart, like on “Soldier” when he sings “I am tired / I am afraid / My heart is full of dread” in an absolutely heartbreaking timbre. My own modern anxiety is transported to a muddy, medieval battlefield where I face almost certain death. I look at my hands to see they have a vice grip on love’s pleasures, like the soldier whose story Dawson tells:
“Even now on the evening of battle
I’m clammy with doubt of love
I’m really scared of going
How I yearn to hold you once again”
These are dark places to venture, and if we trust Dawson he will lead us into them. But don’t expect to be comfortable. After the beautiful cries of “Soldier” we find ourselves landing in the scattered guitar and musings of “Weaver.” His bellowing voice crumbles into darkness and then ascends in an innocent falsetto. “Prostitute” finds him wailing out the story of a prostitute that steals the horse of her dying client so she can finally escape her life as “a plaything of miscreants, malingerers, dastards and knaves.”
It doesn’t take long to realize the horror of these gut-wrenching tales. The characters in “Peasant” inhabit a medieval world of subjugation and terror, powerless against the “whips and scorns of time,” as Shakespeare said so well in Hamlet. Although the stories pull us down into this gruesome world, there is a spectacle, a wonder in it, that Dawson rips out for us to see. This is the world of his songs, and they are alive in all their horror.
“Beggar” tales a tale of loneliness. It is the story of man whose only friend is his beautiful dog, a “snow-coloured collie” that often attracts the attention of passerbys. An achingly beautiful song, it’s probably Dawson’s closest thing to folk-pop. Although the song is catchy and inviting at parts, you can sense that Dawson won’t let this be some inspiring tale of friendship. Everything beautiful must be lost:
“If you rely on the kindness of strangers
It helps to have a hound for a handmaid
Not only for the superior nose
Often people stop to talk with me
Having never seen before such a very beautiful snow-coloured collie”
Off-kilter percussion and a cacophony of strings float in to accentuate the tragic story of “Beggar.” At the end, our destitute narrator has sold his shoes to buy a chicken for his dying companion. He carries his dog down to the sea and asks the stars above him “Can you ever forgive me?”
“Masseuse,” an epic song that comes in at nearly 11 minutes, ends our macabre journey. In wailing tones, Dawson’s character becomes fascinated with an object called the “Pin of Quib,” which will grant eternal beauty to whoever possesses it. His quest leads him to murder, but then he wakes up in an ochre forest, tied up and gagged with a monk staring at him. He finds out what the “Pin of Quib” really is. The search for eternal beauty has robbed him of what sight he ever possessed.
Dawson’s lessons on “Peasant” are cruel and rotten. His dark world of searchers, beggars, and prostitutes rings out in macabre beauty. I have never run across an album that can ring out so beautifully through off-key notes and buzzing guitar strings. It is an eeriness that catches you out of the corner of your eye when you’re walking alone. It is the fear and wonder that mix together in the deep wilderness. Maybe it is the sublime nature of life which Dawson summons, that which exists beyond the beauty and the horror.